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Causes of poor handwriting

Identifying the root cause early will help to better equip parents on how to nip it in its bud and correct the handwriting issues.

Handwriting is a deceptively simple skill relying on several sub skills, involving cognitive and visual performance, and unlike what many may assume, is not just about fine motor abilities. Of course, fine motor skills play a big part and a weakness in this area is one of the most common causes of difficulties. However, as you will observe later, there are also other areas we should be paying attention to. Typically, when children struggle with certain motor difficulties, the result can be writing which is illegible or difficult to decipher.

Such difficulties are not limited to being unable to form neat letters on paper - it also includes being visually able to make all the letters the right size, adding appropriate spacing between words, and applying not too much or too little pressure with the writing tool. Additionally, it also involves holding the paper down with the non-dominant hand and having the correct arm position and posture for writing (for more information on common handwriting problems, refer to our article on ASD and common handwriting problems).

Handwriting trouble may show up in preschool when a child starts drawing and colouring activities. Even with the increased use of technology, handwriting still plays a major role in the early stages of life, i.e. many years of school. If little is done to correct their struggles, these issues will be prominent in their writing into adulthood, hence the root cause should be identified early.

For example, if the child often breaks the crayon while writing, he might be using a grip that is too firm! If letters appear too dark or light on a piece of paper, the cause might be due to an inability to control how much pressure he applies. Or, he might just be unaware that he is using too much strength. Meanwhile, if a child has sensory issues, they may tend to scribble continuously to give themselves proprioceptive feedback. handwriting skills will naturally develop.

A second reason may be poor visual-motor integration (VMI), the communication between visual and motor systems. With good VMI skills, a child would be able to copy or draw shapes and numbers, as that involves firstly the programming of letter formation before movement execution. The keyword here is integration, because even if both basic visual skills and motor skills are fine, a poor integration of input from these two systems will result in difficulties with handwriting.

A third reason could be issues with Orthographic coding, which refers to the skills a child needs in order to recall what a word or letter looks like, and how to go about forming it. Issues with orthographic coding may be identified from the following behaviours: Forming a letter differently every time they write it, writing it different ways within the same task or retracing parts of the letter to try and figure out where the next part should lead to (which results in overlaps that are very untidy). They may struggle with figuring out where to start the letter, and hesitate a lot while writing. It would take them a long time to pen down a single word and hence they take much longer than their peers to complete a worksheet. Unlike Visual-motor integration, delays in Orthographic coding skills may affect reading as well.

This is why the skill of pencil control should be separated from the learning of letter formation - we do not want the child to have to practise or recall letter formation while being burdened by the stress of having to consciously control the fine movements needed to write with a pencil. Since both skills are relatively unfamiliar to the child and not yet mastered, learning both in the same drill is equivalent to expecting them to multitask, itself something already difficult even if you know the subject.

This is especially important for children with poor fine motor skills. We have to try to avoid letting their fine motor skills get in the way of them learning letter formation, and the best way to do so is to work on letter formation and pencil control in separate drills, even if taught concurrently within the same program.

Last but not least, there is also the one reason that everyone would naturally think of when it comes to handwriting - fine motor skills and wrist movements. Fine motor skills refer to the ability to control and move smaller groups of muscles within the hand, and therefore has a direct impact on handwriting. However, it can be improved with a lot of focus on fine motor activities that do not necessarily have to be stationery-related.

Let me sum it up with a quote from Medwell et al (2009), "Handwriting is not just about training the hand; it is about training the memory and hand to work together to generate the correct mental images and patterns of letters and translate these into motor patterns of letters - automatically and without effort!" Sounds complicated? You're not wrong; it is complicated. The good news is that identifying the issue early will better equip us to nip it in its bud. So for parents who have children struggling with this issue, it may be helpful for you to observe them for a period to see what difficulties they might require help with, and then provide focused assistance for them to become more confident and happier at writing!

Written by Claudie.

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